In our cars, kitchens, bathrooms and clothes, plastic is everywhere.
Every year, we produce around 340 million tons of it (enough to fill all of the skyscrapers in New York!); however, what once seemed like a modern miracle for convenience and durability, now poses a serious threat to the environment, our health, and the wellbeing of future generations too.
Over the last few decades, evidence has been growing about the dangers of plastic and in particular how difficult it is to dispose of.
The problem is that when plastic is thrown away it doesn’t just disappear. Much of it breaks down into small pieces, which then find their way into our oceans, rivers, lakes and soil where they can cause great harm. In 2004, Richard Thompson, an oceanographer from Plymouth University, was the first to use the term ‘microplastics’, when he described the billions of tiny plastic particles that came from discarded objects made specifically for commercial purposes, and the threat they posed to the planet’s finely balanced marine ecosystems.
Other more recent studies have also shown that the harmful effects of microplastics are increasing exponentially. Scientists have found microplastics everywhere - in sediments at the bottom of the ocean, in the ice floating in the Arctic, and in the stomachs of small fish like krill, which are eaten by most other fish in the sea. Not only that, in some beaches in Hawaii, 15% of the sand is actually made of microplastic granules.
It’s probably fair to say that the problem of microplastics really started to disconcert us when it entered the home and literally touched our skin.
That’s because in the mid 1990s many companies began to replace natural ground seeds or fragments of pumice traditionally used in toothpastes, shower gels, face scrubs, detergents and cleansing agents, with tiny plastic granules to give products a gritty texture or smooth structure. Only a decade or so later, scientists began to raise the alarm, reporting how these new microplastics were flowing into our drains and out into our natural waterways by the billions every day.
Studies also found that synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester were releasing thousands of plastic fibers with each washing cycle. The tide began to turn in 2015, when the US Congress reviewed a bill to partially ban cosmetics containing microplastics.
Then in 2016, Greenpeace launched a petition to ban microplastics in the UK, and over 365,000 signatures were collected in just four months. This was Greenpeace UK's most successful environmental petition and it has only just been surpassed by a new petition asking supermarkets to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging they produce. Today, laws prohibit the use of microplastics in cosmetics and toiletries in many countries in the EU, England and the United States.
And just like France declared its intention to ban the use of plastic dishes and glasses by 2020, this year Italy will introduce a ban on cotton buds, and Kenya will become part of the increasing number of countries banning the use of plastic bags.
The previously mentioned oceanographer Richard Thompson is convinced that the real solution is preventing plastic from entering the sea, while also changing our everyday attitude towards plastic.
What is certain is that in spite of all these well intended measures, there is still a long way to go to get rid of this invisible enemy, and it is unlikely that a final solution will be found for a mistake made upstream. Because maybe this is what it is: a design mistake, and everyone is now wondering how this has happened.
Sources for the article: “Usciamo dalla Plastica”, AA.VV., Internazionale, 21/27 December 2018, no.1287, year 26 “Plastica”, Parker Laura, National Geographic Italia, June 2018